Tag Archives: Malaysia

Thoughts on Malaysian protests

I did not participate in the latest iteration of the Bersih protests. My wife and I are currently living in Seremban and in fact we are in the process of moving house this week. My wife wanted to check out the local chapter of the protests here but it turned out that we were too busy for that too. We had some furniture deliveries to handle on Saturday and our carpenter came in too to do our kitchen cabinets. We did pay attention to the central square where there the gathering was supposed to happen but there was only like a couple hundred or so people in yellow shirts and some police looking on disinterestedly.

I should note that my wife is much more enthusiastic about the movement than I am. I guess my own interest in local politics only go so far and no further. As I’ve explained to my wife, Malaysian politics is about opposing personalities rather than opposing policies. Neither the governing coalition nor the opposition has any real ideology beyond getting into power however possible. It makes things no fun at all for a policy wonk. Headline proposals such BR1M and the cancellation of student debts are attention-grabbing populist measures with no attempt at all to spin them around a coherent and differentiated political philosophy.

Be that as it may, and with acknowledgment that all this is coming from someone who is self-admittedly neither particularly interested nor particularly knowledgeable about local politics, here are some comments:

  1. Bersih 3.0 turned out to be more political than previous iterations, with opposition politicians playing a more active and visible role. This has upset many participants in the protests. I agree that this is sad. At the same time, I don’t see how this can be avoided. In fact, I think it is a necessary part of the political awakening of Malaysia. Elections are a zero-sum game. There is a clear winner and a clear loser. After the governing coalition tried its best to shut down the last round of protests in no uncertain terms, it was always a given that any future iteration would not be just for clean elections, it would also necessarily be against the government. Implicit in a show of popular strength of this type is the message, “This is what we want. Do it or we will put the other guys into power.” How can this be anything but political?
  2. Malaysians are reluctant participants in the political process. There are things that we want and there are things that we are against, but we find it difficult to translate this into support for a specific politician or opposition to a specific politician. We prefer to stick to statements of general principle. This is because we perceive all politicians are dirty and that politics is an inherently unsavory business. But I believe this is a naive view of the democratic process. The process is all about picking winners and losers so let’s not pretend that it isn’t.
  3. Winston Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others is probably the one quote I pull out the most often in this blog. But once again, it’s worth looking into what it really means. What it’s saying is that government is inherently bad because it involves coercion against citizens. It would be better for everyone if no coercion was necessary at all and people could just live and let live. But that’s not realistic and since no government is worse than a bad government, we might as well employ democracy to ensure that the coercion we must exercise is at least backed by a plurality of the country’s voters.
  4. By the same token, you could say that all politicians are bad. These are by definition people who have expressed a desire to possess power over other people’s lives. Surely there is something egotistical about that? So in line with Churchill’s dictum, I would say that democracy isn’t about choosing the best leader, because they’re all bad. Arguably, it isn’t even about choosing a good leader, because anyone who has come into a position of power in a democratic system must surely have made many, many questionable compromises along the way because you just can’t please everyone all of the time. Instead, democracy has the much more modest aim of choosing the least worst leader.
  5. So what I’m saying is that not supporting the opposition parties because they’re not perfect is a terrible way of looking at democracy. At the same time, if you’re a Malaysian who wants change, I can’t imagine how you can avoid baldly stating that you want the ruling National Front coalition to be toppled. Unless you sincerely believe that it is capable of internally reforming from within, which seems wildly implausible. So why pussyfoot about it? Any protest in favor of change is a protest against the government. And any protest against the government is a token of support for the opposition. Perhaps one day power can slip easily enough from party to party that we can have real civic bodies around specific policy issues and such bodies would be able to endorse whichever candidate, regardless of party affiliation, that best exemplifies their values. But that day is far in the future.

With all that said, and again bearing in mind that this is coming from someone with no real knowledge of Malaysian politics, I think those who despair about the worth of our opposition politicians and have the energy and drive to do something about it, could do well to get in touch with their local representatives. I have a friend who regularly volunteers to do work on behalf of the DAP. He has no illusions about the worth of grandees like Lim Kit Siang, but he has plenty of nice things to say about his local representative. From what I understand, the low-level MPs in the opposition coalition are very approachable and you might be pleasantly surprised by how easily you can be involved in the thick of things if you’re so inclined.

How do elections affect the KLSE?

Strangely enough, despite being 36 years old this year, the upcoming Malaysian general election is the going to be the first one for which I will be in the country as an adult of voting age. Since Malaysian politics bore me in general so this post won’t be about that. Instead, this post will deal with a good question posted by someone in the general LYN stock market trading thread: historically speaking, how does the local stock market respond to elections? Are there any patterns at all? Out of curiosity, I spent some time making charts of the KLCI for the six months before and six months after each of the four previous elections. So here they are:

Continue reading How do elections affect the KLSE?

My thoughts on the Bersih rally

I promised to write some of my thoughts on the Bersih rally earlier but never got around to it. The main thing is that others have already written what I’d wanted to say, and said it better to boot. The best one is probably this that was linked by Tan Kien Boon. This post on Marina Mahathir’s blog is good too. I’d hate to repeat what others have already said, so I’ll keep my own thoughts brief:

  • The government could have handled things much better if they had moved into damage control mode instead of counter-attacking like that. It makes me wonder if this is a reaction born out of panic and fear of losing power, or whether they actually need to be appear to be tough before the more hardcore elements of their constituency in order to avoid being usurped in an internal power struggle. If it’s the latter, it’s at least good politics even if the results aren’t too great for Malaysia. If it actually is the former, then it’s just plain stupid of them to act like this.
  • Like many other Chinese, I was struck by the high level of camaraderie in the crowd. Since I’ve spent many years living abroad and have little contact with the other races in Malaysia, it was hard for me to gauge how much support the rally had among the Malays. One commentator on QT3 asked me about this and I honestly didn’t know enough about Malaysia to answer. It was extremely heartening to learn that many Malays are far more enthusiastic in their opposition to the Barisan Nasional than the Chinese.
  • A. Samad Said commented that this was the finest display of 1 Malaysia he had ever witnessed. While this sounds cheesy and I have plenty of things to disagree about with Malaysia’s poet laureate, such as his insistent championing of the Malay language, in this instance I am inclined to agree. It was a truly novel experience for me to speak and cooperate with Malays without having to be conscious of our different races.
  • The lameness of the mainstream media is an old subject by now but I think this episode makes it more apparent than ever. Many, many middle-class Malaysians had to read accounts of the event that they personally knew were untrue from eyewitness accounts. It’s hard to believe all these thousands of Malaysians can go back to trusting what these media organizations say.
  • On the negative side, I’m still nonplussed that apart from Ambiga Sreenevasan herself and A. Samad Said, most of the leaders prominent in the movement are attached to opposition parties. Where are the heads of the trade unions, religious groups and other NGOs that are part of the coalition? Obviously the opposition politicians have more incentives to trumpet their prominence, but I’d hoped that the other NGOs could be more visible so as to credibly turn the movement into a more neutral affair.

Despite the lower than expected turnout, I think it’s hard to call the rally anything other than a success, especially after how the government repeatedly shot itself in the foot in its response. People are certainly far more alive now to how much in-grained opposition there is to Barisan Nasional and more cognizant of just how far the government is willing to go to hold on to the power. Most people who turned out at the rally are extremely happy and proud that they did so while those who didn’t go have expressed disappointment in themselves that they missed the chance to be part of something big and important. It’s still a long slow grind towards true democracy but the Bersih rally will likely be remembered as a critical stepping stone along that path.

Bersih 2.0 Rally

To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant to join in the rally. While I consider myself interested in politics, I’m more of a policy wonk. I like to think about how social engineering is achieved through legislation and education. By contrast, politics in Malaysia is about personalities. This makes the local scene very uninteresting to me. Similarly, while I laud the movement’s aim of clean and fair elections and I do agree that political gatherings are a fundamental right and not a privilege that we need to apply permission for, I also think that there is substance in the government’s complaints that the movement is simply a political rally organized by the opposition parties. I think it is a mistake that the opposition parties tried to grab so much of the focus. Bersih is supposedly a coalition of many NGOs. Why not have them take center-stage instead of the opposition parties?

At the same, I was scared. The risk of being arrested and having to face the consequent legal hassles were slight but non-negligible. One of our friends, who seems to join in all these protests, had also warned us that the authorities would be sure to deploy tear gas. We would also need to run at a moment’s notice, a dangerous activity while being in the middle of a crowd. Then there’s always the chance that things could get really ugly if the Perkasa and Umno Youth counter-rallies actually manage to clash with the Bersih group. Still, my wife was quite insistent, we had plenty of friends who would be going and it was for a good cause, so we went.

Continue reading Bersih 2.0 Rally

Property prices in Malaysia and economic forecasts

Please take this entire post with a huge grain of salt. I am not an experienced investor and I have no special knowledge of the local market. Plus I can and have been spectacularly wrong. So this is all just amateurish speculative musing. Also, this is mostly written from the perspective of a property investor. If you’re buying something to stay in yourself, you can rarely go wrong so long as you’re happy with what you’re buying.

The talk of the town lately is the ongoing boom in residential property in the Klang Valley. No one in KL could possibly have avoided noticing that double-storey terrace houses in desirable areas are now in the RM700k to RM800k range. That is up from around RM500k just two to three years ago. And prices are still going up with no end in sight. Despite recent moves by Bank Negara to curtail lending for property purchases by limiting loan amounts to 70% of the value of the third property and above, lending has actually increased in the first quarter of the year.

Continue reading Property prices in Malaysia and economic forecasts

Why does the Malaysian government love a property bubble so much?

Even by the dismal standards of the Malaysian government, the recently announced plans to “help” first-time house buyers left my mouth agape in amazement. They propose to do this by allowing them to take loans of up to 100% of the purchase price for properties costing up to RM350,000, essentially doing away with any need to make a down-payment. Predictably enough, this prompted commentators to observe that this would make it even easier to speculate in real estate, causing prices to shoot up even more and taking them further out of reach of first-time buyers. But the government is firmly of the opinion that there is no bubble, meaning that price increases of fifty percent or more over the past two years in key areas of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor were perfectly normal.

You know how else the government plans to help people who can’t afford a house? It thinks that people should extend their house loans over longer periods and are encouraging the take-up of two-generation loans. This means loans that are so expensive that you have no hope of repaying them within one lifetime, so your kids must continue servicing the loan long after you are dead. Of course, this also means that your kids are in debt from the moment they are born. In the meantime, saner governments in Singapore and China are responding to the rapid increase in property prices in their respective countries by doing the exact opposite: severely restricting the amount of loans that can be taken out and insisting that buyers stump up ever higher down-payments for each additional property they buy.

I’m not alone in thinking that contrary to what the government is saying, there is a bubble. Take this columnist in The Star for example. As he notes, if prices rise so high that they are out of whack with rental rates and incomes, they will inevitably come crashing down again. Even the consensus on the Property Talk section of LYN, a place that is extremely bullish about making money from real estate deals, has come around to the idea that a popped bubble is a matter of when and not if, though the forum is still full of people who think that they can run and in out for a quick buck before the house of cards come crashing down.

And of course, all this when the world is still grappling with the fallout of the US-based subprime crisis. While the financiers certainly played their part in securitizing all the loans to hide the credit risks inside, the reason why these loans were possible in the first place was because the US government wanted to make it easier for people who had difficulty in proving that they had regular income to get loans to buy houses.

Note that I don’t claim to be an expert in these things and unlike the US, it’s hard to get good statistics on the situation in Malaysia. It’s certainly possible that the bubble is confined to a few key areas so that there’s little to fear on a wider scale and it’s equally possible that as a nation with a population that is still growing, Malaysia has a property market that is going to be able to absorb such price increases for a great deal longer. But it’s also worth noting that property prices in markets like Tokyo and Hong Kong still have not recovered the peaks they reached during their respective bubbles, more than ten years later.

Overall, I can’t imagine how anyone, beyond those directly poised to benefit from the higher prices and the enlargement of the already dominant construction industry, would think that these moves by the Malaysian government are wise. Perhaps this is just a bit of pump priming to jumpstart the economy so that the BN will have a better chance during the 2012 elections or perhaps this is a crass money grab by cronies. Either way, if this is the direction that the Malaysian wants to take for the property market, we’re in for some volatile times.

Allah in Malaysia

I haven’t posted anything on this because I’ve already vented about it on discussion forums and as comments on the blogs of other people. This means this is mostly just a recap of opinions I’ve written elsewhere. Basically I think that both parties are right. The Roman Catholics should have the right to use the “Allah” name for their deity. On the other hand, I think that the Muslims in the country are justified in fearing that this is a move that’s meant to confuse Muslims and to proselytize Christianity to Malays by stealth.

I realize that while there are non-Malay groups who primarily speak the Malay language, particularly in the more remote parts of Sabah and Sarawak, I think it’s also worth pointing out they represent a tiny minority of the population. By far, the vast majority of those who use the Malay language as their mother tongue are Malays and according to Article 160 of the constitution of Malaysia, Malays are Muslim by definition. Generally speaking, it is impossible in Malaysia for Muslims to convert to another religion. At the same time, deliberately conflating two religions to confuse people is an accepted part of the missionary’s playbook. This is for example how Buddhism spread in China, by taking on the names and characteristics of the existing Confucian and Taoist beliefs and appropriating them into itself.

Naturally the Christians in the country don’t claim to want to spread Christianity to Malays but I don’t see how they can reconcile this with their wish to use “Allah” as the name of their deity and the wish to import and distribute Bibles in a language that Malays can easily understand. 15,000 Bibles in the Indonesian language is a pretty impressive number. This is the 500-pound elephant in the room that everyone involved in the debate is shying about from. Of course it is unfair that non-Muslims can convert to Islam but Muslims can’t convert out of it. I can’t see how you can call it religious freedom while such restrictions exist. But this is the accepted reality and challenging this really would tear the country apart, which is why I think that pushing the issue in such a sly way is a really obnoxious move on the part of the Roman Catholics.

As a libertarian I’m all for true freedom of speech and true freedom of religion but unless the Roman Catholics are willing to come out and really state out what they want without avoiding the main issue, and face the inevitable consequences, all of this is just a distracting sideshow.